I have a friend who appraises antiques assigning a dollar value to the old Chinese vase your grandmother used for storing pencils, telling you how much those silver knickknacks from Aunt Fern are worth. He says the hardest part of his job, the part he dreads the most, is telling people that their treasure is worthless.
I can empathize. I feel like I do that too, every time I tell a prospective HBR author that their ideas, research, or writing just isnt good enough to make the cut.
You and Your Team Series
Rejection letters arent easy for any of us. Whether youre telling a job candidate that he didnt make the next round, an entrepreneur that youre not going to fund her project, or a vendor that you no longer need his services, these are emails most of us dread crafting. Because its unpleasant, too many of us put it off or dont do it at all, essentially letting our silence do the talking. Thats a missed opportunity (and rude). Though painful, rejection has benefits: Research by Linus Dahlander at ESMT and Henning Piezunka at INSEAD has found, for example, that when organizations take the time to explicitly reject (rather than just passively ignore) crowdsourced ideas, it both increases the quality of the ideas theyre being offered and increases the engagement of the crowd.
If theres one thing that Ive learned in a decade at Harvard Business Review during which Ive rejected literally thousands of ideas, pitches, and drafts its that a quick no is better than a long maybe.
Writing a Basic Rejection Letter
Writing good rejections does take a bit of time especially at first. But one of the benefits of learning to write a good, clear rejection letter is that it forces you to think clearly about what it is that you want from other people, and what it is that your organization really needs. For example, I can categorize most of my rejections for HBR into one of five categories: too broad (and thus not very useful to readers); too repetitive with stuff weve already published; too jargony; too self-promotional; not supported by enough evidence or expertise. Knowing this, we were able to distill a set of guidelines for prospective authors that encouraged them to avoid these common pitfalls.
That said, rejection letters need not be long, and the reason you give for the rejection need not be super-detailed. If you dont have much of a relationship with the person you never met them, maybe just traded some emails the entire letter might be just a few lines. I looked back at some rejection letters I sent and realized that I usually follow a pretty simple format:
- Say thanks.
- Deliver the news.
- Give the main reason.
- Offer hope.
Thanks for your patience while I reviewed this proposal. Im afraid Im going to have to pass. Weve published a lot on cybersecurity lately, and unfortunately the proposed piece overlaps a bit too much with other articles weve published. I hope you find a good home for it in another publication.
All the best,
If I were giving bad news to someone Id interviewed for a job, I might tweak it a bit, but the basic format would stay the same:
Thanks for making the time to talk with me last week. While I enjoyed our conversation, I think we need someone with more hands-on project management experience for this role. I hope you find the right job for you in the near future.
If you cant think of any hope to offer at the end, then dont. Do not say anything that will give the recipient the impression that the door is still open, Joceyln Glei advises in her new email writing guide, Unsubscribe. Such clarity and finality can feel cruel, but adding additional language to soften the blow only serves to create false hope. Say your piece and sign off. False hope is crueler than no hope. False hope just encourages the other person to waste more of their time, and yours.
If the idea of ending with an unsoftened rejection makes you unbearably squeamish, you can close with an extra thank you. Consider this example of a rejection letter to a vendor:
Thanks for your detailed proposal. Taking a look at the materials, it seems like your firms key strengths dont quite overlap with what we need for this project. Thanks again for taking the time to put this proposal together for us.
Writing a Detailed Rejection Letter
But what if the pitch (or person) was really close to being a good fit, and you might want to work with them in the future? Or you have more of a relationship with them? In those cases, the above messages are probably too cold and too vague. When rejecting people I want to encourage, I keep the format much the same but am generally much more detailed in my reason for rejecting and more explicit in encouraging the person to try again. (In the study I mentioned above, Dahlander and Piezunka found that providing an explanation about why an idea was being rejected bolstered the beneficial effects of rejection e.g., motivation and idea quality.)
I also often end with a question, to try to signal that Im genuinely interested not just making an empty, softening-the-blow promise. For example:
Thanks for your patience while I reviewed this proposal. Im afraid Im going to have to pass. Weve published a lot on cybersecurity lately, and unfortunately the proposed piece overlaps a bit too much with other articles weve published. For example, take a look at the article we published on August 6 by Professor Joe Schmo, and the August 16 article by the CEO of Acme Corp. Although we wont be able to publish this particular piece, I really enjoyed your writing style and the way you supported your argument with extensive research; would you be interested in pitching us some other articles in the future?
All the best,
For the job interviewee, it might look like this:
Thanks for making the time to talk with me last week. Im sorry to say that your candidacy did not make it to the next round; weve had a very competitive pool for this position. At this point, our organization really needs someone with more project management experience. However, I really enjoyed our conversation and think you could be a good fit here in the right role. Please do keep in touch and is it OK with you if I let you know about roles that open up that might be a better fit?
All the best,
Now for the vendor:
We were lucky to get some strong proposals in on this and we deeply appreciate all the info from your side and for your patience. After a lot of careful thought, we have decided to go with another firm for this project. While we certainly have no doubt about the superior quality of your team or that you could deliver on this skillfully, we decided to use this project to expand our bench of development partners and, since this is part experiment for us, this was a good opportunity to do that.
Wed really like to continue talking with you about future projects we have coming up this year. I definitely look forward to collaborating in the future.
Thanks again for your help and your time,
The more specific you are about the way you reject something (or someone), the more information you give them. A smart rejectee will use this information to come back with a stronger pitch the next time. Ive actually had a few people thank me for rejection letters I wrote to them, because it gave them the kind of concrete, specific feedback they needed in order to make a better pitch in the future. Its a good reminder that people do value receiving criticism, even though most of us dread giving it.
Writing a Rejection Letter When You Disagree with the Decision
Its especially tough to pass along a rejection decision that you disagree with. Maybe you fought hard for a job candidate everyone else was unimpressed by, or championed the cause of a vendor that the executive committee thought was too expensive. I know Ive argued for articles that other editors thought werent ready for prime time. Its not a good feeling.
When this happens, its tempting to hide behind passive voice or other people e.g., It has been decided that we wont be pursuing this or The bigwigs have decided to go in a different direction. Resist that temptation. Its not any easier to get rejected in that fashion, and writing that way undercuts your authority as a decision-maker.
Management Tip of the Day
Quick, practical management advice to help you do your job better.
If youre the one issuing a rejection, own the rejection. Its fair to say something like, After a lot of discussion and back-and-forth, weve decided X or It was a really hard decision, but weve ultimately decided Y. But say we, not they.
A rejection letter in which youre hiding behind someone elses skirt inhibits your ability to give useful feedback. It also makes your organization look fractious or contentious, which undermines other peoples desire to work with you in the future.
Writing a Rejection Letter After a Ton of Back-and-Forth
The other kind of rejection thats really tough to deliver is the one where youve both put in a lot of time and effort to make the thing work but its still not working. Now, despite the sunk costs, it is time to cut your losses and move on. In some cases, a phone call is the best way to deliver this kind of news use your judgment. But if you decide to write an email, its OK to keep it brief. Usually, at this point, you and your counterpart will have spent so much time talking about the problems with the project or the piece that your counterpart will already know the reason behind the rejection; you just need to recap it briefly.
Heres an example:
Hi [Their name],
Thanks for taking another stab at this. I really appreciate all the time and effort youve put in. Unfortunately, despite both of our best efforts, I think [problem X still applies] and were still not hitting the mark. At this point, Id say lets set this one aside and move ahead.
The other thing I try to do when delivering this kind of tough news is position myself on the same side as the person Im rejecting: We have made a good faith effort; and despite that effort, we have fallen short. This isnt just window dressing; if youre rejecting something after a lot of involvement, then some part of the failure is yours, too. (And maybe a sign that you should have sent a quicker rejection sooner in the process, when it would have been less painful for both of you.)
Delivering bad news is tough, and in different companies or cultures these examples may sound either overly harsh or too nice. Youll need to find your own language depending on the context and the culture. That said, remember: Dont soften the blow just for the sake of blow-softening. False kindness just gives people false hope. And theres nothing kind about that.